views updated


The Women's Section of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (19191930).

In November 1918 Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Konkordia Samoilova, Klavdia Nikolayeva, and Zlata Lilina organized the First National Congress of Women Workers and Peasants. This was not actually the first national women's congress, as Russian feminists had held a huge conference in St. Petersburg in December 1908. Kollontai and her comrades, however, explicitly rejected any parallels to the earlier conference, arguing that they sought not to separate women's issues from men's but rather to weld and forge women and men into the larger socialist liberation movement. Despite serious ambivalence over whether to create a separate women's organization, the Congress passed a resolution requesting the party Central Committee to organize "a special commission for propaganda and agitation among women." The organizers limited their designs for this commission, however, initially claiming that it would serve "merely as a technical apparatus" for implementing Central Committee decrees. This was not, they insisted, a feminist organization.

The Central Committee now sanctioned the formal creation of women's commissions at the local and central levels. In September 1919 the Central Committee passed a decree upgrading the commissions to the status of sections (otdely ) within the party committees, thus creating the zhenotdel, or women's section.

Several factors played into the creation of the women's sections. The top leadership of the party, including Vladimir Ilich Lenin, were well aware of the German Women's Bureau and International Women's Secretariat created by Clara Zetkin and the German Social Democratic Party. Many of the top women Bolsheviks (especially Kollontai and Armand) had begun their social activism by working among women, while others (including Krupskaya, Samoilova, Nikolayeva, and Lilina) had worked on the party's journal The Woman Worker (Rabotnitsa ) in 1913 and 1914.

One reason motivating Kollontai in particular as early as the spring of 1917 was a fear that if the Bolshevik Party did not organize an effective women's movement, Russian women living under conditions of war and privation might well be drawn into the remnants of the prerevolutionary feminist or Menshevik movements. Related to that was a persistent anxiety among Bolsheviks of all outlooks that if they did not recruit women into the official party, their (i.e., women's) backwardness would make them easy targets for all manner of counterrevolutionary forces. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the early party-state desperately needed to mobilize every woman and man to support the Red Army in the Civil War.

Nonetheless, the ambivalence of the 1918 Congress dogged the women's section for the whole of its existence. The leaders themselves expressed ambivalence about the project on which they were embarking. Were they creating special sections and special conferences so that, in the long run, they could eliminate the need for such sections and conferences? Many female activists, moreover, had personally chosen socialist organizing and activism because they sought an escape from gender stereo-typing; they did not want to be thought of as women, let alone as professionally responsible for women's advancement.

From the outset the top leadership of the zhenotdel faced a wide range of organizational problems. These included constant turnover of their personnel as their best members were siphoned off for other projects; communication difficulties between Moscow and the regions; resistance of rural and urban women to outside organizers; and resistance of male party members who thought this work completely unnecessary.

Despite all these difficulties the zhenotdel made significant gains in the area of organization-building during the period from 1919 to 1923. Often working in special interdepartmental commissions, they established relations with the Maternity and Infant Section (OMM) of the Commissariat of Health, as well as with the Commissariats of Education, Labor, Social Welfare, and Internal Affairs. They addressed issues of abortion and motherhood, prostitution, child care, labor conscription, female unemployment, labor regulation, and famine relief. They argued vehemently with the trade unions that there should be special attention to female workers. They published special "women's pages" (stranichki rabotnitsy ) in the major newspapers, two popular journals (Rabotnitsa and Krestyanka ), and Kommunistka, which was geared toward organizers and instructors working among women.

With the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, zhenotdel activists faced a whole host of new problems: rising and disproportionately female unemployment; cutbacks in budgeting for local party committees which prompted them to try to liquidate their women's sections altogether; cutbacks in the social services (child care, communal kitchens, etc.) that zhenotdel activists had hoped would assist in the emancipation of women from the drudgery of private child care and food preparation. Kollontai and her colleagues now began insisting, in Kollontai's words, on not eliminating but strengthening the women's sections. They wanted the women's sections to have more representatives on the factory committees and Labor Exchanges (which handled job placements for unemployed workers), in trade unions, and in the Commissariats.

The party responded to this increased insistence with charges of feminist deviation. In February 1922 Kollontai (now tainted as well by her involvement in the Workers' Opposition) was replaced as head of the zhenotdel by Sofia Smidovich. Smidovich, a contemporary of Kollontai, was much more socially conservative and less adamant about all the injustices to women. Kollontai and her close assistant, Vera Golubeva, did not cease to sound the alarm about women's plight, even when Kollontai was reassigned to the Soviet trade union delegation in Norway. From her exile in 1922, Kollontai, calling the New Economic Policy "the new threat," expressed fears that women would be forced out of the workforce and back into domestic subservience to their male companions. She now even began to question whether feminism was such a negative term.

The Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923 reacted vehemently against the possibility of any such feminist deviations. At the same congress, Stalin (normally reticent on women's issues) now praised women's delegate meetings organized by the zhenotdel as "an important, essential transmission mechanism" between the party and the female masses. As such, they should be used to "extend and direct the party's tentacles in order to undermine the influence of the priests among youth, who are raised by women." Through such tentacles, the party would be able to "transmit its will to the working class." Three months later Smidovich announced that Kommunistka would no longer carry theoretical discussions of women's emancipation.

Unfortunately, the historical record of the zhenotdel for the period after 1924 is less clear than the earlier record because the relevant files of the women's section are missing from the party archives. The women's section in 19241925 was headed by Nikolayeva, herself a woman of the working class and long-time activist in the Leningrad women's section. In May 1924 the Thirteenth Party Congress again attacked the zhenotdel, accusing it this time of one-sidedness (odnostoronnost ) for focusing too much on agitation and propaganda rather than working directly on issues of women's daily lives. Soon thereafter Nikolayeva, Krupskaya, and Lilina became embroiled in the Leningrad Opposition. It is quite likely that the zhenotdel records were purged because of this.

Alexandra Artyukhina, newly appointed as director of the section (replacing Nikolayeva), made a point of arguing that the women's sections should propagandize against the Leningrad Opposition on the grounds that otherwise female workers would fall for their false slogans in favor of "equality" and "participation in profits." Now more than ever the women's sections strove to prove their original contention that they had "no tasks separate from the tasks of the party." During the second half of the 1920s the women's section toed the party line, participating in military preparedness exercises for women workers during the war scare of 1927, as well as in the collectivization and industrialization drives of 19281930.

In January 1930 the Central Committee of the CPSU announced that the women's sections were being liquidated as part of a general reorganization of the party. While the decree declared that work among the female masses had "the highest possible significance," this work was now to be done by all the sections of the Central Committee rather than by special women's sections. In some parts of the country, especially Central Asia, the women's sections were replaced by women's sectors (zhensektory ). Kommunistka was completely closed down. Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin's spokesman for this move, claimed that since the women's section had now completed the circle of its development, it was no longer necessary. The historic "woman question" had now been solved.

The impossible position of the women's sections can be clearly seen in resolutions and criticisms of the last years of their existence. They were sometimes criticized for devoting too little attention to daily life (byt ), while other times they were attacked for too much of a social welfare bias in helping women in their daily lives. If they were too outspoken, they were accused of feminist deviations, while if they were not visible enough in their work, they were accused of passivity. Ultimately, the untenable position of the women's sections arose from their position as transmission belts between the party and the masses. While the founders of the zhenotdel had hoped that they could carry women's voices and needs to the party, the party insisted that the principal role of the women's sections was to convey the party's will to the female masses.

See also: abortion policy; armand, inessa; feminism; kollontai, alexandra mikhailovna; krupskaya, nadezhda konstantinovna; marriage and family life; samoilova, kondordiya nikolayevna


Clements, Barbara Evans. (1992). "The Utopianism of the Zhenotdel." Slavic Review 51:485496.

Clements, Barbara Evans. (1997). Bolshevik Women. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Elwood, Ralph C. (1992). Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Goldman, Wendy Z. (1996). "Industrial Politics, Peasant Rebellion, and the Death of the Proletarian Women's Movement in the USSR." Slavic Review 55:4677.

Hayden, Carol Eubanks. (1976). "The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party." Russian History 3 (2):150173.

Massell, Gregory. (1974). The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 19191929. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wood, Elizabeth A. (1997). The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Elizabeth A. Wood